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Hannah R. Marston1 & Deborah J. Morgan2

1Research Fellow, Health and Wellbeing Strategic Research Area, The Open University, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA. Hannah.Marston@open.ac.uk

2Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Innovative Ageing, Swansea University, SA2 8PP. Morgan.D.J@Swansea.ac.uk

The 31st October 2020 will be remembered by many citizens in the UK and in particular England as the day that the Prime Minister held an emergency press conference to inform the nation that Lockdown 2.0 was going to be commencing on Thursday 5th November – a poignant date known as Bonfire night. A night whereby for many people they travel to public firework displays and bonfires, they eat toffee apples, and watch an effigy of Guy Fawkes being burnt on the fire.

For many of us (of a certain age), as a child me and my family would go to a family friends house, whereby we would see a heap of wood in the middle of the garden, our mothers would be busy in the kitchen getting the pie and peas together, the toffee apples and the obligatory sparklers at the ready. While the men, would be stood around talking about where they bought the fireworks from and which firework to set off first.

However, socialising as we know this year has been kept to a minimum. Public bonfires and firework displays will not be going ahead and maybe for some household’s fireworks will still be bought and let off in the back gardens – enabling a sense of sharing for the community. Only time will tell.

Although, we had a break of freedom during the summer months, it has quickly disintegrated and since October 2020 we have witnessed the Devolved nations and Governments (Sproule & McCormack, 2020; BBC News, 2020a; BBC News 2020b; Esson, 2020) implement their own respective legislations and ‘circuit breaks’ (Gallagher, 2020). While in England we have watched with shock and horror how the former Red wall (Harris, 2020) crumbled to Blue in the December 2019 general elections; with many regions now placed into Tier 2/3 measures (Parveen 2020; Ridler, 2020; Tapsfield, 2020) like a school child receiving a detention.

At the time of writing this piece [01.11.20] the county of West Yorkshire (Gittins, 2020) is/was a matter of hours away from Tier 3 measures (BBC News, 2020c), whereas other surrounding Counties such as South Yorkshire and Lancashire have been experiencing these measures for several weeks. However, in light of Lockdown 2.0 commencing in England on the 5th November, the County of West Yorkshire has had a stay of execution, albeit for three days. As of 12.01am on Monday 2nd November, the citizens, and business of this County should have entered into Tier 3 restrictions, but this not the case and will remain in Tier 2 until Lockdown 2.0 commences (BBC News, 2020c).

While Lockdown 2.0 is coming into place across England on the 5th November albeit not at the speed of a juggernaut as some people would prefer, citizens in Wales are looking forward to their fire breaker (Welsh Government, 2020) ceasing on the 9th November 2020 (BBC News, 2020d). What we did not know back in March 2020 (UK Government, 2020a), was how the National lockdown was going to play out. We did not know the level of severity and impact such a national lockdown would have on the mental, physical, emotional health and social connectedness of citizens both young and old.

The purpose of this blog is to explore the relationship between digital technologies in the lives of citizens during 2020.

Digital technologies

Since the previous blog “COVID-19 vs Social Isolation: the Impact Technology can have on Communities, Social Connections and Citizens” (Marston, Musselwhite, & Hadley, 2020) was published [18.03.20] we have seen, and experienced at first hand the myriad of roles in which digital technologies, communication and social media platforms have been playing in the lives of both the national and international citizens. The lockdown resulted in a rapid response by scholars to come together for the greater good, and collaborate on both a national and international plane, in an attempt to seek answers for this unravelling pandemic:

  1. Covid-19 social science research
  2. COVID-19: Technology, Social Connections, Loneliness & Leisure Activities
  3. COVID-19: Vulnerable young people living with life-limiting/life-threatening health conditions and their families
  4. UKRI

For many of us we have been using various communication platforms (e.g. Teams, Zoom, Skype etc.) for both work and social purposes. The latter, we have attended social gatherings such as funerals, birthdays online quizzes, parties, catch-ups, and sharing other memorable events in a person’s life. While the former, the ‘work from home’ (WFH) approach for many has been variable, juggling multiple responsibilities from the standpoint of work and home life (e.g. home schooling, caring responsibilities etc.).

Previously, Marston and colleagues (2020) described how digital technologies may impact the lives of citizens from various standpoints including those who live in rural communities, community and for those who are ageing without children (AWOC). Furthermore, we have witnessed be-it via media outlets and/or through personal experiences, the impact digital technologies has played upon delivering education to the nations children and teenagers (UK Government, 2020b) and a blended form of online and face-to-face teaching at Universities (UK Government, 2020c; Universities UK, 2020; Adams, 2020).

A Digital Christmas

With Lockdown 2.0 on the horizon, what will the next 4-weeks look like?

It is now the day after the press conference was delivered, it is already being mooted that the English lockdown could surpass the 2nd December 2020 deadline (BBC News, 2020e). We can assume such decisions will not be given until closer to the time. However, for many people in England and the Devolved nations (pending respective legislations) the mere thought of being away from friends, and family at Christmas is horrifying. What about those citizens (old and young) who currently and have been alone and who would be preparing to travel to see loved ones over the festive period?

For many citizens, the notion of Christmas is a time to spend quality with (ageing) parents, grandchildren, and friends. For those citizens who are geographically displaced for various reasons including employment or because of the strict number of 6 allowed for Christmas Day, there is the likelihood that for many citizens, Christmas 2020 will be different – an understatement.

Citizens residing in Scotland were informed that they should prepare for a ‘digital Christmas’ (BBC News, 2020f) back in mid-October and only four days ago citizens in Scotland and the surrounding islands were stating that their respective Christmas celebrations would be hosted via Zoom (BBC News, 2020g).

What about those individuals and/or families who cannot afford internet access and have so far received limited social connections via neighbours, or retail assistants/delivery drivers who they may pass cordial pleasantries with – the anguish, fear and upset must be horrific.

As of the 1st September 2020, Butler (2020) wrote an article in the Guardian, detailing the rate of suicides for women in England and Wales (5.3 deaths per 100,000) was the second highest since 2004. While male suicides “accounted for about three-quarters of suicides registered in 2019, 4,303 compared with 1,388 women” (Butler, 2020), with 16.9 death per 100,000 and the highest for 20 years. Additionally, an open letter has been written by 42-mental health experts to the Government detailing the impacts and the likelihood of spikes as a result of Lockdown 2.0, including suicide, self-harm, alcoholism and domestic abuse (Rose, 2020). The news article states from the open letter:

“’Social connection and human touch are essential for psychological stability.’ And isolation can lead to loneliness and is a predictor of suicidal thoughts,” (Rose, 2020).

Conversely, Marston and Morgan wrote a piece (2020) describing how social media platforms and technology can afford citizens both young and old the opportunity to experience escapism. In their piece, Marston and Morgan (2020) use a real world example via a Twitter profile (@bertie_lakeland) and on a daily basis, this Twitter account posts an array of Tweets which aim to uplift followers who maybe feeling low and socially isolated.

Christmas celebrations usually commence late November, with many parties and meals been organised at hospitality venues, and/or plans are being made to attend a local or international Christmas Market.

For many citizens who choose to attend the work’s Christmas party, or take a trip to one of the many German Christmas Markets, as well as attending the British versions in Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, York etc. the atmosphere and environments are wonderful. Hannah experienced these markets for 3.5 years during her time living in Cologne, and can personally testify these markets which take approximately one month to erect, enable residents and visitors the opportunity to meet with friends, family members and co-workers share updates over a Gluhwein and a tasty Flammkuchen (a small pizza with a choice of toppings), Reibekuchen (potato pancakes) or Wurst (sausage).

The various stalls offering amazing products to buy in an environment where each market is created in a distinctive aesthetic/theme (e.g. ice rink, The Dom, winter wonderland etc.) and collecting a decorative mug from each of the markets as a memento. In Cologne alone there are seven individual Christmas markets scattered across the city, offering visitors the opportunity to visit the different districts, and enjoy the positive ambience. Attending a German market for many residents can be likened to, for some British people going to the pub on Friday straight from work. Unfortunately, and at present neither social engagements will be occurring.

For many, be-it going to the Christmas market or the Office party, it is revered as the start to the ‘big day’. However, is it possible that events such as the Christmas markets will be ‘live’ or the option of attending a digital ‘office meal/party’ via Facebook or another digital platform?

Sex and Relationships

Christmas can be a time for many people to have a smooch under the mistletoe, become engaged and even get married. The course of dating, relationships and marriage very rarely run smoothly, and with the advent of technology, there is now an influx of dating apps affording citizens of all ages the opportunity to meet like-minded people (Marston, et al., 2020).

The world of dating apps can be strange, and traditional approaches to dating and relationships can/is thrown out of the window. For some users, they prefer to take their time in talking with the other person. While some users prefer to set a date for the date within days of connecting digitally.

Although using dating apps is not without its perils and many users can receive unsolicited imagery, videos, and inappropriate messages. Furthermore, as Marston and colleagues (2020) note there is a whole array of bad behaviour that users can be exposed to.

But yet in more recent months, many citizens have had the opportunity to reconnect with their partners who live in different areas of the Country. However, over the last several weeks, this will have become more difficult because the various areas and regions been placed into tighter restrictions (e.g. Tier 2 and Tier 3) (Green, 2020). This is before we factor in the differences in regulations and lockdowns on the borders between England and Wales, or Scotland and England which add a further layer of complexity for cross border relationships.

Moreover, for many couples they may have had to make the decision of moving in together or continue living apart and communicate via alternative digital formats there is another group of people in the population who are still seeking their partner.

The use of dating apps may have been an alternative way or another route to emotionally, sexually, and intimately connecting with someone. For some users of dating apps, they share their experiences of sex, intimacy, relationships and dating app usage online – in a public domain for many others to read:

  • @itsmymatepaddy – my mate paddy blog and podcast
  • @BumblingD – blog
  • @LucyGoesDating – blog
  • @girl_tinder
  • @win_conidante – blog

But what about Facebook? It is a platform that requires a user to create their own profile, and usually to invite friends to join them in their own domain, to share their day-to-day experiences of life, events, and sometimes meaningless activities.

Twitter is a public platform, and affords users to connect with other people very easily, for one reason or another, as we have seen over the last four years members of different governments use Twitter as their primary route to reach followers and supporters.

But Facebook is different. It is not public in the same sense as Twitter. If one has their privacy settings set, then not everyone can see what one is doing all of the time. So, Lockdown 1.0 and social media platforms have enabled friends to maintain their social connections whether they are geographically displaced or not.

Can a person find a relationship via a Facebook connection? For users of Facebook they are situated within the users’ profile section, a person has the opportunity to state/select their relationship status (e.g. married, in a relationship with <X-person>, Its complicated etc.) (Robards & Lincoln, 2016; Speed, 2016).

To understand the dating app arena both the Google Play Store and iTunes enables smartphone users to search and install various dating apps via a couple of clicks of a button (Marston, et al., 2020). But Facebook (Sharp, 2019) has recently started to show advertisements to users in an attempt to entice them into using their own dating algorithm (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1displays the Facebook advertisements enticing users into using their own Dating site/app. Images taken by H.R. Marston.
Figure 2 displays the Facebook advertisements enticing users into using their own Dating site/app. Images taken by H.R. Marston.

This new feature to the existing social media platform follows similar patterns and features to existing dating apps – enabling users to connect to other platforms such as Instagram. But from the standpoint of the Facebook dating domain, it uses existing connections, and enables users to comment and like on respective profiles, as well as implementing a ‘secret crush’ feature which in turn allows users to provide this information via the algorithm the recipient is informed that they have a secret crush.

But maybe for some users, they do not feel it is necessary to use a purpose-built feature to find a connection with someone within their circle. What about users who already feel a connection with a friend (e.g. regular communication, sharing commonalities – photography, cooking etc.), but because they are socially and geographically disconnected, their only way of communication is via Facebook messenger.

As we know flirting masquerades itself in many forms, from the very outlandish forms of gestures such as singing publicly to display one’s affections, while some people send flowers, or there is the more subtle approach, illustrated via the use of emojis such as the ‘Face Throwing a Kiss’ emoji at the end of messages, while also including the traditional– xx characters.

Could two users who communicate regularly, chat about leisure activities etc., but yet are quick witted, and flirt with one another through a second language:

“Adios Bonita”

“Hola guapo, como teva”

Could it be, that two users who may have engaged in general conversation and communication via messenger, and video calls end up acknowledging and realising that there is a connection between one another?

However, what is noticeable from the features of Facebook and other social media platforms, they do afford users to socially connect albeit digitally. These platforms enable users to share their activities to their friends and family who are geographically dispersed and for some people, this is important. Because it maintains a connection.

Emotional and Social Connections

SAGE and the Government (UK Government, 2020d) informed the nation on the 31st October 2020 that we were heading into a 2nd wave of the pandemic, which may last longer, and could be more deadlier than the first wave (Owen and Mikhailova, 2020).

Public Health Wales (PHW) recently published “A Health Impact Assessment of the ‘Staying at Home and Social Distancing Policy’ in Wales in response to the COVID-19 pandemic” (Green, et al., 2020) as a way of highlighting the “significant negative impacts for individuals and communities” (Green, et al., 2020) for example financial implications associated to furlough, unemployment, education on and the overall economic impacts on society. This timely report highlights several areas of society, which have been impacted by Covid-19 and include:

  1. “The impact on children and young people who have had their education interrupted, have lost their routines and structures and missed being with their friends, with long term consequences for their educational attainment and life chances.
  2. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups have been identified as having worse health outcomes as a result of contracting coronavirus, and may also have experienced an increase in hate crimes.
  3. The rapid increase in digital technology use has helped people stay connected, continue to work, and access education and key services such as health and social care. However, it has also led to some older people, those from disadvantaged backgrounds and people living in rural areas of Wales being excluded.
  4. A reduction in the use of public transport, which could have a long-term impact when the restrictions are lifted.
  5. Women and children are more likely to have experienced violence and domestic abuse in the home.” (Green, et al., 2020).

Given how Christmas is nearly upon us, with Lockdown 2.0 ahead of the line. For many citizens, their mental health and wellbeing will have already exacerbated due to the recent press conference [31.11.20]. For many citizens, they might have already been making plans to sell their home in the city and move to the Country (Marsh, 2020; Read and Espiner, 2020) or move in with friends, family, friends with benefits or even come together and rent a place (Davies, 2020) in the country. Similar scenes have already been shown in France, with many Parisians fleeing the city prior to the start of their recent enforced lockdown (Wright, 2020).

What we can learn from Lockdown 1.0 is that citizens need that emotional, intimate, and social connection(s) and support. Whether it is a friendly voice to talk to, face-to-face or a cuddle. With Lockdown 2.0, it may be tougher than the first, because:

  1. we are heading into winter,
  2. financial implications, citizens are losing or have lost their jobs, and more crucially,
  3. we all kinda know what to expect.

At present, educational institutions are not closed, health appointments are still permitted, as is traveling into work premises if working from home is not optional.

Digital technologies, social media and communication platforms will still be playing an integral role in the lives of many citizens, and for many families – as a mode of (potentially) sharing a digital Christmas, seeing a loved one and maintaining an array of social and emotional connections.

In the previous blog “COVID-19 vs Social Isolation: the Impact Technology can have on Communities, Social Connections and Citizens” Marston and colleagues described New Year’s Eve 2019;

“As the bells struck the stroke of midnight, ringing in 2020, citizens were smiling, pouring another glass of rosé, red wine or supping from their pint of Guinness from the confines of their local pub, house parties, restaurants, or clubs; while singing auld lang syne, shaking each other’s hands, giving a kiss on the cheek to the person next to them or a hearty smooch with a loved one. The biggest challenge of a generation ahead, at this moment in time in the UK was Brexit, little did we know this was about to be surpassed by something even bigger.”

Acknowledging Brexit is still on course, the next biggest challenge of 2021 is likely to be reducing the R number and for SAGE, the UK Government, Devolved Governments and Scientists to identify an appropriate track and trace system, a vaccine, keeping the R number below 1 and to enable the citizens of the UK to return to some degree of normality.

But as our lives continue to be in a flux, we are having to adapt our behaviours, but yet one thing which remains a constant… Digital Technology, is likely for many households, to have a front row seat at the Christmas table whether we like it or not.

Alas, only time will tell.


The research project ‘COVID-19: Dating Apps, Social Connections, Loneliness & Mental Health in a Pandemic’ is now live, and there are 2 parts:

  1. an online survey which can be completed here
  2. 1-to-1 interviews (recorded) will be conducted (remotely) in 2021.

More information can be found via the project website here

This project has been signed off by the Open University Ethics Committee [HREC/3441/MARSTON] and by Swansea University Ethics Committee.


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